LOS ANGELES — Michigan slogged through the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament with offensive output below its usual standards.
After grinding out 61 points against Montana and 64 against Houston, the Wolverines went into Thursday’s game needing to find some oomph against Texas A&M, the nation’s fourth-most efficient defense, according to the analytics website KenPom.
That did not prove to be an issue.
No. 3 Michigan lit up the seventh-seeded Aggies (22-13) with 52 first-half points — greatly helped by the Wolverines’ 10-for-16 shooting on 3-pointers — and cruised to a 99-72 victory.
Once the score was out of hand, Michigan’s third-ranked defense clamped down, and there was little suspense to the outcome in the West Regional semifinal at Staples Center. The Wolverines (31-7) headed to their grouping’s final on Saturday, where they will face the winner of Thursday night’s game between No. 9 Florida State and No. 4. Gonzaga.
Coach John Beilein partly blamed the earlier low-scoring performances on determining the amount of practice time during the long break after the early Big Ten Tournament.
“I think we were a little tired there,” he said.
Mainly, he added, it boiled down to shooting. A week ago, “when we had open shots, we didn’t make them.”
A primary culprit of Michigan’s recent malaise on offense was Moritz Wagner. Regarded as the country’s premier long-distance-shooting post players, based on his 40 percent accuracy from 3-point range, the 6-foot-11 Wagner managed a combined total of just 17 points in his team’s first two games of the tournament.
With 20 minutes expired on Thursday, he had already amassed 14 points, sinking a pair of 3s that paled next to an offhand banked hook shot that he set up with a behind-the-back dribble.
Wagner, who was saluted on social media for consoling a distraught Houston player on Saturday, could have comfortably stopped by the Aggies’ locker room at halftime to offer condolences for the loss.
Michigan had needed a last-gasp 3-pointer by the substitute Jordan Poole to beat Houston in their game, and on Thursday Beilein wasted little time in calling on Poole, his emerging freshman. Inserted 76 seconds into the game, Poole connected on a 3-pointer 40 seconds later. Hot-wired, Michigan was off and running.
With his team in a quick 19-6 hole, Aggies coach Billy Kennedy switched from man-to-man defense to a zone midway through the half, only to see 3-pointers rain down on them.
Just as Charles Matthews’ shot dropped through the net, Kennedy was compelled to call his third timeout less than 12 minutes into the game. The score: 33-12.
The margin grew, unabated. Texas A&M could merely chip away with 2-pointers, mainly from its NBA-sized front line, with three starters and the main backup measuring 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-9. Eight of the Aggies’ dozen baskets in the first half came on dunks, layups and tip-ins.
Desperate, Texas A&M rolled out a full-court press to start the second half. Wagner promptly struck twice, once for a 3-pointer, and the only uncertainty was whether the Wolverines would reach triple digits.
Even while carrying possessions deeper into the shot clock, they came up just a free throw short of 100, and Texas A&M never managed to get their deficit to fewer than 18 points.
Michigan’s final basket was a 3-pointer by C.J. Baird, a former student manager who had scored 2 points in the previous 37 games.
“Those are great moments,” Beilein said. “Those are the ones I may remember more than others.”
Perfect on 3s (3 for 3), Wagner settled for 21 points, the final 2 coming via an emphatic dunk off a backward, no-look pass. The assist man, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, his feet in pink Jordans, outscored Wagner by 3 on a night when Michigan’s offense pivoted from woeful to wonderful.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.